O'Malley: If Notre Dame can find consistent 'backs from its six-player committee (the guess here is USC transfer Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson will do the heavy lifting), quarterback Tommy Rees will be a very efficient senior quarterback. If not, and Rees is asked to create too often on third down, the Irish could struggle. The loss of tight end Tyler Eifert is a bit overblown -- he was their best player, but Brian Kelly's offense has two potential breakout receivers in T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels, plus a collection of six more receivers/tight ends that will contribute.
Coming out of fall camp how would you assess the team's defense?
O'Malley: Notre Dame's defense gave up 9 regular season touchdowns last season -- NINE. But coordinator Bob Diaco's unit surrendered six to Alabama alone in the BCS Championship game. They won't do that again in a game this fall (even blessed with a rematch vs. 'Bama) but the ridiculous number of 9 in the regular season (NINE!) cannot be duplicated, not without the absurd seven-interception season of Manti Te'o at middle linebacker or remarkable play and good fortune in the red zone.
The front seven, in good health, is among the nation's five best, but the defensive line -- six-deep last season -- is top-heavy, with just four reliable candidates due to defection and injury. The team's linebackers took an unexpected August hit, losing every-down starter Danny Spond at the drop 'backer position. Fortunate for Irish fans, that spot happens to be the team's deepest, with 5-star freshman Jaylon Smith ready to take the reins a year ahead of schedule and two quality players behind him.
The secondary returns three reliable cornerbacks plus a fourth in freshman nickel starter Cole Luke, and four intriguing safeties. The catch? Just one of those safeties has recent game experience at the position. If Notre Dame can avoid growing pains at field safety (the last line of defense in the Irish scheme) and stay healthy up front, no team will score more than three touchdowns against them this fall.
If not, a three- to four-loss season beckons, as Notre Dame will live and die with its defense again in 2013.
With the 2013 season about to begin, what do you think is the team's biggest strength and what is its biggest concern?
Its biggest strength is doubtless the starting defensive line. Whether showing a 3-down or 4-down alignment, Notre Dame can boast two future first round picks in nose guard Louis Nix (MVP 1B to Manti Te'o last season) and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Outside linebacker Prince Shembo is a dark horse All-America candidate as a pass rusher (his backup is a former five-star OLB and two-year contributor) and sophomore Sheldon Day is beloved by the staff, replacing undervalued 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore. Senior defensive end Kona Schwenke is a quality backup and was noted by Diaco as one of August's most improved Irish.
The biggest concern? Will quarterback Tommy Rees resemble the sophomore starting version of 2011 -- a player that tossed 20 touchdowns with 14 picks, and lost five fumbles? Because that won't fly for a squad that last year beat teams by dominating defensively and not beating themselves when they possessed the football. Rees' lack of mobility killed the offense vs. quality defenses in seasons past, but he has appeared far more confident, strong, and decisive in the pocket this August.
Which players were some of the bigger surprises on both sides of the ball?
O'Malley: Shembo's backup Ishaq Williams was a contributor last fall, both as a pass-rusher and coverage linebacker, but it appears the former 5-star will fill a third role this season: backup defensive end. Look for nearly 30 snaps per game for the 6'5" 260-pound junior.
Freshman Corey Robinson (David's son) enrolled in January and has since shined. The media has watched approximately six scrimmages since the beginning of spring ball and Robinson holds the honor of coming down with the best catch -- maybe 10 of the best 12, in fact -- during those sessions. He's a walking fade pattern touchdown entering his first season of college ball.
Senior safety Austin Collinsworth (Cris's son) looks like he'll either start at field safety or be the valued No. 3 safety, rotating at both spots. Collinsworth missed the 2011 season with a torn labrum, then had back surgery which slowed him in the spring. Since mid-April, he's been on the rise, and for the first time this August media saw Collinsworth take first team reps from sophomore knockout hitter Elijah Shumate -- a player long-assumed the new starter at the position.
A final surprise is a name familiar to ASU fans, true freshman cornerback Cole Luke. Luke appeared to win the team's "nickel" spot by mid-August. That doesn't mean he'll be the first cornerback off the bench in a rotation, or should a starter go down -- that's senior Lo Wood -- but Luke will cover opposing slot receivers in third-down and obvious passing situations. Said cornerbacks coach and former NFL safety Kerry Cooks of Luke: "Cole is probably one of the smartest football players, just from understanding concepts, body position, the feel for the game, why you want to do this, that I've coached in my career. We'll see how he reacts once he gets out there live, but that's why he's in a position where he's competing for a lot of different things right now. He's just a good, smart, savvy football player that has a great understanding for the game."
With the current status of the team what in your opinion is a realistic prediction in terms of W-L record?
O'Malley: It feels like a 9-3 team for three reasons:
A.) The season starts with the team's backup quarterback in charge for the duration.
A + B.) Defensive depth took an August hit when two of the front seven's 12 best players were lost for the season. So too was a potential starting field safety in sophomore Nicky Baratti. When a team lives and dies with its defense, and was expected to be a "quarterback-driven offense" per its head coach, and it loses crucial pieces to both, that's a cause for concern.
A season-ending battle at Stanford looms, with the always-close trap in Heinz Field (Notre Dame and Pittsburgh have played to a margin of 122-118 with seven overtimes in their last five meetings) intermixed, plus a senior day game vs. rock-solid BYU.
The schedule offers no favors. Golson is gone. Defensive depth up front took a hit. And things went Notre Dame's way last year.
One caveat - if ND beats Michigan in The Big House in Week Two, look out.